Reporting and photo by Jamie Painter
In addition to playing husband and wife on "ER," actors Mike Genovese and Ellen Crawford mirror their onscreen relationship: They have been married since 1982. Back Stage West met with the thesp couple to talk about their respective views on the acting profession and their shared passion for theatre.
Crawford, who grew up in Normal, Ill., got her break fresh out of high school when she was chosen out of 3,500 hopeful hippies for her first professional role in the Chicago company of "Hair." She went on to study acting at Carnegie-Mellon University and after graduating worked steadily in East Coast and Midwest regional theatres. She starred on Broadway in "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" Upon moving to Los Angeles in 1984, Crawford continued to do theatre at such venues as the Old Globe in San Diego, La Jolla Playhouse, and the Ahmanson, while getting jobs on such television series as "Murder, She Wrote," "China Beach," "thirtysomething," and "Night Court." Her film credits include "War of the Roses" and "Cries of Silence," co-starring her husband. Currently she is a regular on "ER" as nurse Lydia Wright.
St. Louis native Genovese earned a master's degree in drama at Eastern Illinois University and taught acting at Webster College from 1969 to 1973 before devoting himself to work as actor in Washington, D.C. (where he met Crawford), Chicago, and later Los Angeles. His stage credits include "The Iceman Cometh" at the Doolittle Theatre, "The Speed of Darkness" at Berkeley Rep, and "Uncle Vanya," which ran last year at San Diego Rep. Genovese has appeared in the films "Point Break," "Harlem Nights," and "Code of Silence," and such TV series as "Bablylon 5," "Brooklyn South," "NYPD Blue," "Chicago Hope," "Family Matters," "Arli$$," and "ER," on which he has a recurring role as Sgt. Al Grabarski.
Mike Genovese: Acting is pretty easy when you get right down to it. You don't have to go to work everyday, and if you mind your business and have a decent amount of luck, you can hang around the house, read books and plays, and go to the track. It's a great job.
Ellen Crawford: I don't necessarily agree with that.
Mike: You don't have to. Most of the stuff we do isn't great art. It's a job, and we end up making a lot of money if we're lucky. We've been lucky for a while.
Ellen: But how many years did you spend working your butt off in theatre and out there hustling?
Mike: Yeah, but it was still the best life you and I could possibly get conceive of.
Ellen: It was, but it was also hard work. Right now my life is not as hard as it has been in the past. I go to work at ER, and it's a lot of long hours and it can be tedious at times when I'm working every little minute detail in a trauma scene, but it's not as difficult as hustling everyday, terrified that you aren't going to find another job, which is what you spend most of your life doing as an actor.
I always say if you have to be an actor, you should be an actor; nobody's going to be able to stop you. But I think it's a real misconception to say, "Oh, I want to be an actor because it's easy." It isn't easy. It's hard to get jobs. You don't have security even if you have a show. You don't know if your show's going to continue or if you're even going to be staying with your show. So I don't think that security is ever really completely there. It's not an easy life. And you know that. You put three kids through college doing this.
Ellen: I've probably done less theatre in the last four years than I have in my entire life. But still, at least once a year I have to do something in the theatre, because it's a part of me. I miss it if I don't do it enough. It's like missing a part of myself.
Theatre is an actor's medium. No matter how you put together your performance in television and film, ultimately there's a director saying what shots there can be and an editor deciding which of that they're going to use in the end. In theatre, you make your own focus, and if you don't get focused then you're not going to have the effect you want. You piece together your performance, and even though you may have a director that works you, ultimately you're up there by yourself. And I love that kind of responsibility. I love knowing that you can't say "cut" and go back. Whatever happens, you're going to have to deal with it. I enjoy television a lot, but theatre is more the actor's responsibility.
Mike: You get more opportunity to be involved in the telling of the story and the imparting of whatever it is that this play is about in terms of expressing something about the human condition.
Ellen: See, the thing that I really enjoy about acting is--you know those people who are in graduate school forever? In a way, actors get to do that. You can learn about another time period. So it's a history lesson or a sociology lesson. You really get to explore. I get to study and learn and do my work on this role. It's a continuing education. I get to step into somebody's life for a little bit and try to figure out what that feels like. That's an exciting way to make a living.
Nothing to Lose
Ellen: I think you can do more for yourself than people say you can, even in Los Angeles, where they say you have sit back and wait for the phone to ring. It's not true. What I learned along the way is to really explore every avenue. It's always been hard for me to really push; it's not my nature, but I've made myself contact people and explore possibilities. You're really the one fighting for you, and although other people may become interested, ultimately it's you that has to keep the ball rolling.
People used to say to me, "Those open calls, you can't get anything out of them." Well, I've had several jobs from open calls. You can get something. And what do you have to lose? It's another opportunity to audition, to meet people. Maybe they remember you or they don't remember you. Just get yourself out there as much as you can.
Mike: I tell my agents, "If nothing else, just get me the auditions. There's a point where I don't care if I get the job, but if you get me the auditions at least I'm out there practicing." It's a way of keeping myself making choices. If they like me, they like me, if they don't, they don't. Auditions--I don't care whether they're good or bad, whether the room is cold or hot when you walk in--I'm still doing what I like to do. I'm getting a chance to act. BSW